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How Rodney Tom's switch let mutual obstruction reign

News analysis: And there's no sign future sessions of the Legislature will face any less difficulty coming to agreements.
Washington State Capitol

Washington State Capitol Washington State House Democrats

House Speaker Frank Chopp

House Speaker Frank Chopp Photo: John Stang

State Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom

State Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom John Stang

Rodney Tom took a gamble and won.

The Medina Democrat and Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, switched sides last December to join 23 Republicans in a coup to take control of the Washington Senate.

It was a tenuous control. A 25-24 split.  A one-vote margin.

Just one person crossing the aisle could wreck the one-third moderate, two-thirds conservative alliance united on the issues of a limited budget, no new taxes, plus education and regulatory reform. Democrats vilified Tom and Sheldon. Republicans welcomed them.

That alliance held strong through thick and thin.

It controlled Olympia for the past six months. Nothing could get done in the 2013 legislative session without the blessing of the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus. Any bill that it did not like, the coalition just kept that legislation from going to a vote.

This has been refreshingly good or frustratingly bad, depending on where you stand in the political spectrum. 

The coalition stopped a big push by Gov. Jay Inslee and Democrats to close tax exemptions, which the alliance portrayed as tax increases. The coalition sank the replacement of the aging Portland-Vancouver bridge, which Clark County conservatives fiercely fought because they did not like the concept of taxpayer-financed light rail using the proposed bridge to connect Vancouver with Portland. Their other bogeyman — the new bridge being too low for some ship traffic — was being gradually taken away by mitigating measures negotiated with upstream manufacturers.

The coalition killed a House bill to enable kids of undocumented immigrants to apply for state aid to college if they graduated high school in Washington. The coalition's conservative wing did not like the concept, while the coalition's moderates did.

But the caucus displayed its tightness and its discipline to Olympia and Washington. It killed that bill even though it would have received a solid majority of the votes in the Senate. That act showed that the moderates in the coalition would not buck the alliance's conservatives. And it showed the House Democrats that the coalition would not split under any circumstances — an on-target preview of the two-month budget deadlock that for a time threatened to partly shut down the state government today.

The same thing happened to legislation to require insurance companies offering maternity coverage to include coverage for abortions, another bill that had the votes to pass. Again, the same signal of unity went out.

House attempts to close 13 tax exemptions and to extend a business-and-occupation tax on services plus a beer tax all died — with the majority coalition's opposition being the biggest factor. That translated to either the state losing roughly $1 billion in revenue, or to saving Washingtonians from a job-hampering $1 billion burden in extra taxes, depending on your point of view. Seventeen new tax exemptions worth $13 million in 2013-2015 were added. Maybe the biggest voluntarily bipartisan move was Tom and Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, getting a law passed to put specific job-creation goals and expiration dates on new and extended tax exemptions.

So on tax exemptions, the majority coalition won big. Really, really big.

Both sides will tout allocating an extra $1 billion to improving education to meet a Washington Supreme Court mandate as a bipartisan compromise. But it took Republicans and Democrats almost six months to reach that compromise, with the threat of a government shutdown as a major motivation in the last two to three weeks. A big problem is that significantly more than $1 billion will be needed each in 2015-2017 and 2017-2019 — meaning future major clashes on this issue are almost inevitable.

Tom was a centrist Democrat, fiscally conservative and socially liberal, who did not like his party's plans to use new revenue and not budget shifts to meet the Supreme Court's mandate. So he switched sides while still calling himself a Democrat. And he was named leader of the 23-Republican-two-Democrat alliance.

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Posted Mon, Jul 1, 8 a.m. Inappropriate

The very anal squirrels from D.C. appear to have migrated to the state with the same name, not that they were ever very far away. nuts to all of them?


Posted Mon, Jul 1, 3:32 p.m. Inappropriate

Rodent metaphors are hard. Is this one about Inslee?


Posted Mon, Jul 1, 8:55 a.m. Inappropriate

Got an editor? I count 8-12 instances of typos, plural subject/singular verb, dropped words and other blips that a proofread, if it occurred, should have caught.

Posted Mon, Jul 1, 10 a.m. Inappropriate

Soo... it is ok for Frank Chopp to run Olympia for years and years and throw fiscal accountability to the wind.. and yet when another voice appears that says let's slow down a bit and stop raising taxes at every turn... you call that a bad thing!!

It is only bad in your mind.. and from your writing... because Frank Chopp was not completely in control this year. I for one would like to see the Governor lead.. and not have the state run by Frank Chopp. Chalk up one to the majority coalition who is filling an increasing large leadership void.


Posted Mon, Jul 1, 10:34 a.m. Inappropriate

As I've said before, the budget was balanced at the expense of the wildly successful, 28 year old Public Works Trust Fund program, which was swept clean. Any analysis that doesn't mention the unceremonious flushing of over a hundred locally prioritized water, sewer, stormwater, road, bridge, and solid waste projects, along with the 3000 jobs those projects represent, missed one of the most shameful acts of this Session of Bullying and Squabble. Instead of the $394 million in projects from the dedicated Public Works Assistance Account, which could have been $700 million until the governor's office cut it in half, the politicians chose damage control in their home districts by picking, and taking credit for vote-producing pork projects... pages and pages of them. Both the PWTF and the state's public infrastructure will suffer for decades because silly boys and girls can only see the world in red and blue. Does "leadership" really mean being the biggest bully?


Posted Mon, Jul 1, 11:21 a.m. Inappropriate

I think Rodney Tom has confused being bi-partisan with being bi-polar. Maybe that's what happens to a guy stuck with two first names, with the last name being more a first name than the first name itself. If you see what I mean.


Posted Mon, Jul 1, 11:54 a.m. Inappropriate

For Seattle's "progressives," it eventually comes down to the vicious personal attack. All that Kumbaya is strictly for show, isn't it, woofer?


Posted Mon, Jul 1, 5:19 p.m. Inappropriate

How many multiple special sessions to get a budget have we had in the recent past with Democrats in charge of both chambers of the Legislature and the Governors mansion? Sounds like the problem may not be with the coalition.


Posted Mon, Jul 1, 5:21 p.m. Inappropriate

It was particularly noteworthy that the Senate Republican Caucus engaged very much in exactly the kind of behavior that they claimed they were going to 'reform' once they seized power:

* sponsoring title-only bills

* avoiding budget gimmicks like 'sweeps' from dedicated accounts

* habitually waiving the 'five-day rule' and holding hearings without adequate public notice

* allowing legislation with broad bipartisan support (such as the Reproductive Parity Act) to be held up based on the whims of partisan ideologues.

One of the things Rodney Tom and his Republican colleagues promised under their watch was 'better governance.' I don't think history will be kind in its assessment.

Posted Mon, Jul 1, 6:38 p.m. Inappropriate

The some good complaints there. Maybe both parties should pledge to stop the title-only bills, the waiving of the five-day rule, and the use of budget gimmicks. As for the Reproductive Parity Act, even though I supported it, the Republicans' blocking of it was fair politics. Irritating, but not in the same category as the other sins.

By the way, on the budget gimmicks especially, that one took two to tango. Hanging that on the Republicans alone is patently disingenuous and undermines your credibility in general.


Posted Mon, Jul 1, 6:48 p.m. Inappropriate

I agree that both parties are guilty of the budget gimmicks, and that such gimmicks are a disservice to establishing a credible, sustainable budget.

My complaint here is that the Senate Republicans complained - correctly - that previous Democratic majorities used these gimmicks, and pledged that things would change under Republican leadership.

Posted Mon, Jul 1, 9:31 p.m. Inappropriate

At the end of the day, it came down to the same old game. Neither side was willing to face facts, including arithmetic, so they told the mutual lie they needed to bring back to their constituents, who pretended there was any content to it.

They each get to say they complied with the Supreme Court education ruling, which itself was a) a big overreach, and b) an attempt by the teachers' union to get a raise. In fact, they allocated a whole lot less to education than they claimed, and anyone (including the Seattle Times, apparently) who cares to look knows it.

It's distressing, for sure. But to ding one side without equally dinging the other side is b.s. Ultimately, the culprit is this state's brain dead voters, who get what they deserve.


Posted Wed, Jul 3, 6:30 a.m. Inappropriate

An attempt by the teacher's union to get a raise? Really?! That's something that they should have pushed but didn't.

As for the aging infrastructure, time will answer all of our questions relating to it. If bridges collapse, and highways that have been washed out continue to remain in disrepair. Maybe the business (which reap the greatest benefit from their existence) will decide to contribute to the cause and we might see an improvement. It's only fair really. Since the teacher's paid for much of what the legislation called "their new funding for education" (320 million to education and away from COLAs), maybe the corporations could pay their own direct tax to the infrastructure.

Posted Mon, Jul 1, 6:44 p.m. Inappropriate

As far as transportation goes, I seem to recall that the Republicans had an $8.x billion transportation package that the House Democrats dismissed. To hang this on Rodney Tom is pure desperation and whining, in my opinion.

Look, they did what they had to do, and passed a budget, along with some other legislation. The Democrats played "my way or (no) highways" on transportation, so the Republicans called their bluff. Must be hard to learn that you don't always get your way.


Posted Mon, Jul 1, 7:41 p.m. Inappropriate

Mr. Stang would probably do a great job as a writer/communication specialist for the governor or the democratic caucus of either the house or the senate. He's a talented storyteller and wouldn't have to moderate the partisan progressive narrative in which he lives. It could be an excellent match for all concerned.

Posted Wed, Jul 3, 7:14 p.m. Inappropriate

For the same story from the perspective of the Senate coalition: http://washingtonstatewire.com/blog/senate-majority-caucus-set-the-pace-for-this-years-legislative-session-decision-by-two-senators-to-caucus-with-republicans-made-all-the-difference/

Posted Sat, Jul 6, 11 a.m. Inappropriate

Rodney Tom may have won but the citizens surely lost. The fiasco that Twas the Tom coalition has already motivated me to lend my support to Ds in neighboring districts.


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